Max Weber and the Iron Cage of Bureaucracy

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The technological and scientific advances of history are said to have been the prime motivators for the change from traditional to modern day society, but German sociologist Max Weber argued that it was rather a shift of ideas that drove this change. In feudal society, based on the Catholic Church, traditional authority of the monarchy was legitimized because of “divine right” rather than personal skills and talents. Rationalization, according to Weber, originated from the Protestant Reformation, and engaging in “work” became important (CrashCourse, 2017). With “modernity” and the rise of the industrial age, society started to incorporate new legal systems and decision-making processes, and enforcing rational-legal authority, in which power is legitimized through rules, laws, and regulations. People would vote for and bring support for a charismatic authority, a person or political party to make the laws (Ravelli and Webber, 2016). With this new capitalist society driven by profit-making interests, came the desire for efficiency in the workplace and in industries. Weber believed in a formal, rigid structure of organization (Study.com) and thus, the bureaucracy was born, dominating every aspect of society from state institutions to multinational corporations. However, he feared that society could become irrational, with people becoming trapped in an “iron cage of bureaucratic capitalism” (CrashCourse, 2017). This occurs when bureaucracies transform into inconvenient and impersonal settings that restrict individuality (Thorpe, C. et al, 2015), work becomes meaningless and alienating, and the corporate interests of the elite few exercise control over all, as exemplified through the MacDonaldization of society and the power of the food industry. The final goal of society becomes none other than economic gain.

Bureaucracies, as described by Weber, have defining characteristics. Social stratification plays its part, as there is a hierarchy of command in which those in higher positions supervise those beneath them. In this formal setting, there is a set of standardized procedures (much like a manufacturing setting of a factory) and management is through rules, laws and regulations (Study.com) (Weber, 1921). Employees are assigned tasks by their employers, resulting in a division of labor. The specialization of tasks varies and depends on the amount of skills required for each position and the specific work setting. Employees are hired based on their competence, level of experience, and ability to do the work required, and they undergo thorough training procedures (Weber, 1921). The leaders or managers must be impersonal and formal with those below them to maintain fair and unbiased treatment. In traditional societies, favours, bribes, and pleading would be exchanged with the king and other leaders in an attempt to bend the rules, but the rigid structure of today prevents this from occurring (The School of Life, 2016). To ensure consistent results through methodical procedures, the management of the office is based on formal written records which are constantly revised and contain all the policies and decisions made by the office (Study.com) (Weber, 1921).

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Irrationality occurs when the focus is solely on following rules and procedures, and economic gain becomes the end goal while the work becomes meaningless. The workplace is drained of creativity and there is a loss of individual autonomy. People become obsessed with their economic ambitions and desires for a higher place in society. When human thought and emotion is disregarded in the name of efficiency and convenience, society starts to run on an irrational set of practices. After becoming ill, one is forced to wait, sometimes for hours, in the doctor’s clinic, filling out forms and being sent back if one forgot their health card at home, despite the name being in the system. Bureaucratic procedures can be time consuming, uncompassionate, and a source of psychological stress, and can be compared to a mechanized process in which officials are turned into machines and personal issues are unaccounted for (The School of Life, 2016). In a capitalist society, the power is in the hands of a few who own the means of production and exploit workers and deceive consumers.

Arguably the king of corporations, MacDonald’s, has dominated the fast-food industry all across the globe, creating what sociologist George Ritzer calls “The MacDonaldization of Society”, based on 4 main principles. Efficiency is the first, and it’s based on bureaucratic principles of organization and mass-production techniques. Calculability means that all tasks are timed, and quantity over quality is emphasized. Predictability is when a consumer can expect the same product anywhere and at any time in the world, and finally, control is based on the hierarchy of command in the workplace (Thorpe, C. et al, 2015). These four principles, although stemmed from rationalization, contribute to the dehumanizing effects that MacDonald’s canhave on its employees and consumers. There is no care for the consumer’s wellbeing when it comes to healthy practices, as the only aspect that is focused on is the profit that is made by the big corporations. These principles can be applied to all aspects of society, such as to education. In universities, learning becomes a means to achieve an end, being a high-paying career, rather than an end in itself. Students are prone to rules and regulations, such as those of academic dishonesty or even strict deadlines set by their professors. Cramming and stressing for standardized exams, only to forget the information the next day has become the norm. Students become caged with one set of practices and an ongoing, repetitive routine. Students do this in order to get a degree, in order to work one job for the rest of their life, contributing to the capitalist system. When individuality and creativity is needed the most from young generations, it is instead hindered rather than reinforced. Education becomes based on the four principles of MacDonaldization, and therefore becomes irrational in its workings.

One of the biggest examples of irrationality is presented in the food industry, as shown in the film Food Inc. Advertisements represent a blurred reality when it comes to knowing where food really comes from, and the meat packing industry is the largest culprit. In factory-farming procedures, both the animals and the workers are abused in the name of producing cheap goods in large quantities. The animals are forced into cramped, disease-ridden conditions, and are pumped with antibiotics to make them grow faster and bigger. With hundreds of animals being killed and grinded at once, the possibility for a sick animal to be mixed with the rest is very high, as is the possibility of tainted meat being sold to the public. Companies now own the animals, and the control has been taken out of the hands of the farmers who, because of their high debt, are forced to comply with the rules and regulations set by their contract. Today, the top 4 beef packers control 80% of the entire industry (Kenner, 2008), making the diversity of foods in the grocery store a myth. Workers in this industry are forced to work in dangerous conditions with blood, feces, and urine, making them prone to infection or even death. The wages are low, but workers can’t afford to leave, and the company uses this fact against them. The workers face alienation, forced to do the same task over and over again using assembly-line techniques.

There is high work dissatisfaction, and the workers are replaceable (Thorpe, C. et al. 2015). It is in this way that irrationality is born, as the desire for more efficient means of production are proving to be detrimental. People become hooked to unhealthy foods due to the ever-growing and highly influential fast food industry, because of its cheap and affordable prices, driving obesity rates and risk of heart disease. Animals are being tortured in unimaginable ways, workers are reduced to a lower status as their wages and benefits are cut, and even he environment is negatively impacted due to pollution from farming and factory practices. In a competitive market, all organizations of society must adhere to the same practices for the most profitable results, despite the detrimental impacts.

In conclusion, the ‘iron cage of bureaucracy”, or the irrationality of rationality, can occur in all aspects of society, in any place containing a formal organization of a bureaucracy. Today’s world is designed to build the leaders of tomorrow, but irrational practices and the MacDonaldization of everything from state and religious institutions, to education and military practices, to factories owned by large corporations, can hinder individuality and creativity, and can be dehumanizing and detrimental to society as a whole. Capitalist practices place power in the hands of the elite, and driven by greed to obtain power, status, and money, will risk individuals and society as a whole. Max Weber, although he believed that bureaucracies and irrationality were inevitable, he didn’t say that society was doomed, and in fact, it could be changed. As ideas switched the thinking from traditionalism to modernity, ideas can once again use their power to change society so it benefits the collective and not the few.

Works Cited:

  1. CrashCourse. (May 18th, 2017). Max Weber & Modernity: Crash Course Sociology #9. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=69VF7mT4nRU&t=51s
  2. Kenner, R. (Director). (2008). Food, Inc. United States: Magnolia Pictures.
  3. Ravelli, B, & Webber, M. (2016) Exploring Sociology. Ontario, Canada: Pearson Canada Inc Study.com. Bureaucracy: Max Weber's Theory of Impersonal Management [Video file].
  4. Retrieved from https://study.com/academy/lesson/bureaucracy-max-webers-theory-of-impersonal-management.html
  5. The School of Life. (August 15th, 2016). How to Cope With Bureaucracy. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CL_IoZqyb1I
  6. Thorpe, C. et al. (2015). The Sociology Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained. New York, NY: DK Publishing.
  7. Weber, M. (1921/1968). Economy and Society. (G. Roth, C. Wittich, Eds., G. Roth, & C. Wittich, Trans.) Los Angeles: University of California Press, pp. 956-958.
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